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Staff Editorials

On freedom of speech, media access

By Dan Pool, Editor

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With Facebook booting seven well-known firebrands, issues like freedom of speech and freedom of the press have taken a higher profile in the national discourse this week.

Facebook’s decision to ban accounts like Louis Farrakhan, Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos put on a national stage the thorny, open-to-debate decisions that editors of newspapers have been dealing with all the way back to Benjamin Franklin with his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729: how to handle the contributions of people who have extreme opinions. Here are a couple of musings from this humble community editor.

At the Progress and with most other newspaper people I know (and I suspect with behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube), the first mission which occupies most of your energy is simply getting your product out to readers. For a workflow the last thing you need is to get into a prolonged debate over a couple of sentences in someone’s letter or opinion piece. I strongly suspect reading the accounts of Facebook’s decision that for the past year or so they were hoping the situation would just go away and they could get back to making billions and expanding their product ever-deeper into people’s lives.

At the Progress when election time rolls around our chief aim, contrary to what many feel about media bias, is to make sure we get the candidates’ names spelled correctly, the date of the election correct and that we don’t mix up quotes. Frankly, that takes most of a community newspaper’s time when politics gets heated. 

A couple of points I’d like to clarify that are often fired like inaccurate Scud missiles regard freedom of speech and freedom of the press, both found in the First Amendment but not always understood.

Both are freedoms OF, neither are freedoms TO. Freedom of speech is exactly what the phrase says, you are free to say whatever you want. You can go tell everyone you want. You can hand out hundreds of flyers. You can create a website. You can yell it from the courthouse lawn. However, it doesn’t mean a newspaper has to print it, nor does it mean a social media company has to allow it on their servers. There is no freedom to the press. I have had several angry people over the years claim we were violating their freedom of speech because we wouldn’t publish something. I had one person become indignant that we wouldn’t run her extremely long story in its entirety – as though there is a constitutional right in America to have anything you write printed.

The chief at Twitter summarized the confusion over this and social media by musing in a podcast that they are somewhere between “a public square” where conversations happen unfiltered and a service with user agreements. In the end, they do have the right to kick someone off their company’s service – just like a bar can kick out an unruly drunk.

As a sidenote, freedom of the press means that newspapers can operate without harassment by government intervention. It has no bearing at all on someone having their letter to the editor printed.

That being said, it’s rare, very rare that the Progress declines to run something and never because we simply disagree with it. I have had numerous people over the years claim their writings would be too hot for us to print, to which the reply is “try us.” Think about it this way, print something that creates a lot of controversy, stirs people up and sells a lot of newspapers. I can’t imagine any editor not chomping at the bit for that.

Our general philosophy is to be as inclusive as possible of all views in this community and at the same time reject letters that contain blatant inaccuracies in fact – regardless of opinion.

We are committed to seeing all views expressed, even those we may find distasteful, and at the same time recognize our place as a community newspaper and our content should be fit to print. Not an easy path to navigate but nothing that hasn’t been challenging newspapers for 300 years.


Convict camp should be on Historic Register

Two weeks ago we published a story about a local Facebook page that has captivated the community. “Photos of Pickens County Georgia” is a forum where people can share old photos of Pickens’ past. The page highlights how important history is to us collectively, and how our cultural history shapes our identity as a community.

While the photos being shared on this page are invaluable, preservation efforts should go beyond just taking pictures when there’s an opportunity to keep significant pieces of our physical history intact. The recent, palpable sadness caused by the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral shows that some buildings carry more historical weight than others and, if the community recognizes that early enough, they can keep these important structures around for future generations to enjoy. 

The “old convict camp” on Camp Road is architecturally one of the most unique in the county, with its all-marble façade and barred windows, and is culturally significant as a facility that housed chain gangs after it was built in 1938 - but the convict camp is notably absent from the list of Pickens County properties that appear on the National Register of Historic Places, and that needs to change. 

(Places on the list are: Georgia Marble Company and Tate Historic District; Pickens County Courthouse; Pickens County Jail; Tate Gymnasium; Tate House; and private residences the Cagle House and the Griffeth-Pendley House. These listings were added between the years of 1974 and 2008). 

There is plenty of confusion surrounding The National Register of Historic Places and what a designation does and doesn’t do.  Contrary to popular belief, a designation does not place restrictions on the use of private property, nor mean a building can never be torn down, nor require it be repaired, restored, or maintained. Property owners’ rights do not change under this designation. 

But if a designation doesn’t mean the building will be preserved what’s the point? 

Briefly defined, being on the National Register of Historic Places is an honorary title and an official list of properties that are considered worthy of preservation because they are significant in the areas of history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. The program, overseen by the National Parks Services, aims to “coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.”

Benefits of a property being on the list include: helping project planners and developers (public or private) know which buildings are most valuable to the community; education by way of thorough, publicly-accessible documentation about why the property is historically important (this information must be provided during the nomination/application process); the opportunity for property owners to qualify for the Federal Historic Tax Incentives Program that helps recoup rehabilitation costs; and it strengthens arguments about preservation efforts. Property owners can also put up a plaque at the property that shows it has been added to the list (but they don’t have to). 

There are also studies that have found areas that have historically preserved properties see a positive economic impact in property values and tourism. 

We need individuals and community leaders to make it a priority to be preservation minded and take steps to preserve our historical places, or risk seeing them dissappear. We remember the public outcry over the old log cabin at the corner of Cove Road and Grandview Road. The cabin, thought to be built sometime in the 19th century, was torn down and replaced by a Dollar General despite last-ditch efforts to save it. Had someone at some point in the past taken initiative to document the history of the building and get it on the list the outcome could have been different. 

While a designation on the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t guarantee an historic building won’t be torn down or changed, it’s a step in the right direction and one that should be taken for the old convict camp. 









Damn, there is a lot of plastic

By Dan Pool, Editor

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Last week, we had a few days of the Progress Plastic Elimination Challenge. We didn’t create a hashtag or make t-shirts, but our staff did decide to be conscious of our plastic usage for a few days as an experiment.

There are some pretty interesting ways groups promote reduction of plastic with consumers, including several where people piled up all the plastic they wound up with for a period of time.

We made mental notes.

And the one conclusion we all agreed upon is there is a lot of plastic waste out there and you end up with more of it than you realize no matter how much you try to avoid it.

Among some of our small staff’s observations:

• Chances are if you get something to drink on the go, it comes in plastic – though several members of the staff sought out aluminum cans (which are easily recycled and efficient) plastic dominates drink containers - except beer. At several stores, major Coke/Pepsi soft drinks are only offered in plastic bottles. 

• If you eat fast food, you wind up with all kinds of plastic – from packets of sauce, to containers for food and again with the drinks, cups, lids and straws. It’s hard to imagine anything other than plastic or Styrofoam (just as bad or worse chemically) in which you could get a shrimp plate home from a drive-thru. In our discussions, we generally agreed we would pay slightly more or dine elsewhere if a chain offered a non-plastic substitute like corn starch containers that do biodegrade in less than a century.

• A wide variety of purchases, particularly toiletries and small electronics, come in ridiculously thick plastic packaging that is not only an environmental problem but a pain in the rear to open. Do so many products really need to come in a safety sealed cocoon that requires a sharp knife to open?

• Plastic sneaks up on you – Only one member of our staff regularly uses totes in place of plastic bags at the grocery store for big shopping trips. But we all ended up with plastic bags when picking up just an item or two with efficient clerks who bagged purchase before we could say “no bag, please.” Some of us did pull some purchases back out of the bags, but that ends up messing up the clerk’s line and holding up other shoppers.

Taking stock of our habits really made two points: consumers can make a difference with their personal choices that would be significant if a new less-is-better mood became a nationwide norm. It’s not farfetched that people might carry re-useable shopping bags or re-useable water bottles/cups/straws with them one day, as who would have thought every living person would carry a phone with them everywhere they went 10 years ago?

Second, personal choices make a difference, but much of the plastic is unavoidable unless corporations step up with decisions regarding packaging. Is there something less harmful that groceries and other household supplies can come in that consumers will support? 

If you are wondering why we are worrying about a bunch of cups, straws and bags we’ll leave you with this: (numbers compiled from a variety of different internet sources)

• 500 million plastic straws are used in the US every day. 

• The average American family takes home around 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year.

• Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. 

Every little reduction will help, particularly if it’s a small action by many consumers. Just think about the impact over the course of a year if everyone started by  eliminating one straw, one bottle and one bag a day?


Make students who take vapes to school pay for new technology

The local schools have indicated that if they get certain state grants, they will likely buy a very cool, high-tech piece of technology that can determine whether a student’s vape is filled with a legal nicotine product (basically a chemical cigarette) or a synthetic marijuana product (an illegal drug).

This TacticID is considered a needed $50,000 purchase by sheriff and school officials. During this school year, 70 vaping offenses have occurred on campuses and quite a few students have suffered seizures and been transported to the emergency room due to vaping.

Rampant vaping continues despite the schools’ and district attorney’s efforts to show the consequences of vaping synthetic drugs. A more effective anti-vape message should have come from the students spreading a video of a PHS student having what was called a vape-related seizure in the school cafeteria. It was ugly, watching the student flop around then go comatose. If any kid saw it and still said, “you know what, I’ll take a puff or two on the same stuff,” they deserve what is coming to them.

Since education and public warnings didn’t solve the problem, the schools/ law enforcement are going to fight the vaping scourge, which one detective predicted will eventually prove fatal to a teenager, with technology.

Expensive technology paid for by the hard working taxpayers of Georgia.

Medical people want the new technology to better treat vape seizures. Law enforcement wants the TacticID to make stronger charges against kids with synthetic, illegal drugs in the vapes. Both uses only apply to the vape or other drug users -- though the machine can also identify many other substances. If we are going to buy this wonder-gadget, we suggest letting the vapers and their parents pay for it.

The schools could track every time a vape substance is checked on campus and send the vape owner’s family a bill. Perhaps start with something like $50 to the student and his family for any vape check. Any time the results come back positive on an illegal substance, the bill rises to $200 (plus the standard criminal charges). And, any time the device is used to help treat a kid taken to the emergency room due to a vaping seizure, it’s a $500 charge.

The schools already charge for items like caps and gowns, yearbooks and to play sports. So, this wouldn’t be that different: if you want to be on the tennis team it’s a certain price and if the school SRO’s have to test your vape, it’s a set price.

Keep in mind, this isn’t a new tax or forcing anyone to pay anything. Kids who choose to bring vapes to school are subject to pay and if you don’t want to incur a bill, leave the vape at home. It’s a student’s decision and a good lesson in consequences.

While the public service messages on the hazards of vaping didn’t work, even the lazy parents would be a little more  attentive to what their kids are doing if they start getting bills for vape checks. Charging the kids for the use of the taxpayer-funded device to reimburse the rest of us is about fairness and responsibility. It’s not fair for the average citizen to fund the reckless behavior of teens. For the kids, it’s about you (or your parents) being forced to take responsibility for your actions, a great example of making vaping a teachable moment as educators say.


Pickens blessed with health

Where we live makes a huge difference in how well and how long we live and if new research by the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHRR) is correct, Pickens County, which ranked 19th in the state for health outcomes, is a great place to be. 

And we aren’t surprised. While fast food restaurants may dot our landscapes more than fruit and veggie smoothie stands and poor recreation opportunities may hinder us from getting outside as much as we would like, Pickens is still a great place to be. And apparently there are only 18 other counties in the state  “better” in terms of health. 

Pickens is officially 19th out of the state’s 159 counties for health outcomes, with only 13 percent of us ranking as having “poor” or “fair” health. A full 19 percent of people throughout the state rated as poor or fair health. 

Pickens residents only have an average of 3.4 poor physical health days each year. Statewide that number is 3.8 and the least healthy county reported residents with an average of 4.6 days with poor physical health. The healthiest county averaged just 2.9 poor physical health days.

Of course physical vigor isn’t the only thing that makes us “healthy.” Mental health casts a long shadow over our total health and locally people reported just 3.6 days of poor mental health, lower than the statewide average of 3.8. The healthiest Georgia county reported just 3.1 poor mental health days and the least healthy county reported a full 4.3 days.

And while 16 percent of adult Pickens countians reported as smokers, it’s less than the statewide average of 18 percent. 

Not all of the latest health numbers are flattering. Adult obesity in Pickens is listed at 31 percent, one percent more than our counterparts throughout the state. That number is the percentage of the adult population age 20 and older who report a body mass index (ratio of weight to height) greater than 30. Note: One way to combat this might be to shop local at our Jasper Farmers Market now open every Saturday from 7:30 a.m. - noon. Eat fresh and what’s in season.)

Our physical activity is nothing to write home about either. According to the CHRR our physical inactivity level is 29 percent -- five percentage points higher than the statewide average. In other words, Pickens residents as a whole sit around about five percent more than the usual Georgian. We recently editorialized on these pages, our access to exercise opportunities are limited because of the meager state of our parks. And the latest studies reinforce the idea that this county needs more recreation. The CHRR figures showed that “access to exercise” rates at 69 percent here while statewide the average is 76 percent. This based on the feeling of those surveyed who feel they have access to exercise opportunities. 

Seventeen percent of Pickens residents were listed as “excessive drinkers” compared to an average of  15 percent across the state who are imbibing too much or often. 

More and more research shows that our social connections, particularly among older residents, are a key component to living and aging well. (One study even found that social isolation is similar in health risk to cigarette smoking.) Pickens addresses social isolation well, according to the CHRR.  We boast  plenty of volunteer and church organizations that keep our residents as involved as they want to be. According to the study we rate at 9.7 memberships associations compared to the state’s 8.9.   

Much richer counties like Forsyth (#1), Oconee (#2), Cherokee (#3), Fayette (#4) and Gwinnett (#5) ranked highest for overall best health outcomes, according to the report. For surrounding counties, only Dawson to our east ranked higher than us, coming in at #15. Gilmer County ranked 63rd.

So as spring continues its pollen explosion and the days get longer and more filled with sunlight, let’s remember we have it pretty good right here in Pickens County.